I found the first workshop of Research in Translation hugely beneficial in that it opened the door on to a ‘brave new world’ for me: the world of museum studies, exhibitions and presenting information as if to an ‘intelligent 12 year old’. It showed both the great potential and the inevitable limits, or how one is conditioned by this medium, and, not the least, it got me thinking about my own research and message and how that could be put across to a general audience.
As my research material is for the most part archival (manuscripts, official documents, memoirs, literature etc.) and I could not hope to rely on eye-catching physical objects, I was a bit worried that the sort of message I wanted to convey was not compatible with a museum exhibition environment. And this is where the September workshop brought the revelation (probably completely old hat in museum studies – but definitely a novelty to me) that in order to mount an exhibit you don’t have to have an object, that the source of meaning is actually in the clever and striking combination of available materials (be they visual or audio or just plain juxtapositions or spatial positioning). This was a great discovery for me and also a corroboration of insights from other disciplines, such as art and literature, and their reception, which stressed the essentially participative nature of artistic content – i.e. the fact that the audience is instrumental in creating meaning just as much as the artist is.
I found particularly inspiring the presentations which stressed the use of space, positioning and distances in drawing the audience in and subtly directing their attention towards various aspects of the display. I enjoyed a lot the first presentation on Arabic calligraphy because it showed the range of creative possibilities of bringing to life what would otherwise be an obscure subject to many people, and rendering a script exciting, engrossing and very topical. The juxtapositions between samples of calligraphy and contemporary art pieces inspired by old calligraphy were, I think, a great solution for making the subject relevant and contemporary, making it ‘leap out’ to the audience.
Of particular relevance to me was the medieval exhibition at Birmingham Museum, where the curator talked about collaborating with academics and their concerns that their scholarship might be oversimplified and distorted in the process of transposing it into a museum display. Given the target audience and the purpose of museum displays, what came out of that presentation was the need for a compromise between academic accuracy and the imaginative reconstitution of an age – a museum exhibition is meant to convey a vision of the past that attracts people, whets their appetite for the subject; it does not aim for a full-blown academic lecture, although it does strive to preserve as much scholarly accuracy as possible. It was very useful to listen to this presentation because it pointed out a conceptual strategy which I think will come in handy when translating my own research into a museum display: that is, instead of highlighting places, it is much more engaging (and empathetic) to highlight people and use 1st person narrators – this would personalize the whole display, give a ‘lived’ feel to it.
The workshop was very rewarding also because the sort of challenge it held out to us participants (that of boiling down our research to a striking, meaningful display that would speak to, and engross, an uninitiated audience) presupposed using not only our academic knowledge in news way but doing so in a creative way.
One of the things that I took away from this first workshop was the great room offered by the museum environment for resourcefulness: combining different media and waxing creative. After having seen and listened to the presentations of the first workshop, I now feel much more confident to use elements that I wouldn’t have thought of using before (or would have discarded as ‘funny ideas’). I am for instance thinking of using music as a mood enhancer, as an element of suggestion. A lot of my research revolves around the notion of communication and around emotions such as fear and hope. But how do you begin to portray fear? You can do it through images, of people gripped by fear or looking fearful, but also through music. So at the moment I am toying with the idea of using snippets of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to punctuate the voices of revolution in my display. It’s the sort of visceral music that best conveys the combination of fear and hope, that sounds ominous and promising at the same time, and is disjointed enough to suggest the atmosphere of times out of joint, of revolution. That, as well as the fact that it is music roughly contemporary with the events I’m describing.
I am very much looking forward to the second workshop and I’m hoping that at least some of my ideas will eventually find their way into the final exhibit, although I expect that there’ll be lots of pruning and changing involved and this second workshop will be the test of reality and feasibility for all our projects.
Dr Irina Marin, University of Leicester